Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Sunday, April 5, 2009
StN has stuck by me admirably through the cold, dark winter months, as I've scribbled and nibbled my way through, and now our brief eight month fling has come to an end.
Another blog baby is germinating as we speak - the seed's been planted and I'm lovingly watering it as we speak. There will be scribbling of the cartoon variety, adventures - round London, the UK and hopefully elsewhere, a focus on well-being, creative inspiration and kooky characters and, not to completely push nibbling aside, a handful of worthy recipes and the odd restaurant/cafe review.
As Winnie the Pooh said, ta ta for now!
Sunday, March 29, 2009
It's Sunday morning.
And I write from my lovely new flat in London whilst chomping on a bowlful of muesli packed with gorgeous nuts, seeds and berries. What better time to ruminate on the latest, entirely unplanned, gastro-stumble.
Let me momentarily transport you to my new place of work, just off Leather Lane in London. One week in and I'm already head over heels in love with the location. Bridging the gap beautifully between city suits and edgy Clerkenwell/Farringdon (most definitely not suits), it is an area jam-packed full of taste explorations, as I've quickly discovered. From the market on Leather Lane, which gathers momentum (and fruit stalls) towards the end of the week, snowballing into a full-blown, out-of-control crowd by Friday, to tucked away treasures of ethnic foodspots, gastropubs and seriously swanky eats, the place is guaranteed to keep me amused.
Thursday saw me headed out post-work with a friend, David, for a couple of drinks, though sadly at this stage no food (the menu looked fantastic but we were told it was lunch-time only) at The Hat and Tun, a little old man's pub which rapidly gathers an uber-cool crew post 5.30pm, tucked away on Hatton Place. American readers will no doubt find this English name rather quaint...look at it carefully, squint a bit and compare it with the street name, and you'll see what I mean. East London is particularly rife with these amusing little names. Other than that, given I've not tasted the fare, I can't really comment: genial atmosphere, plentiful drink supply - what more could you want from an old man's pub??
8pm taking my friend and I by surprise, our suddenly insanely empty bellies protested loudly and propelled us rapidly in search of some grub. There was something of a desperate clatter in my high-heeled hobble as we headed on up Farringdon Road in the hopes of a foodie find.
I know it may be hard to believe, but there was actually some method to my madness. Deep in the recesses of my fusty old memory bank, from back in the days when Farringdon was a 'really distant' London area which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't connect with my mental map of London, I remembered being taken to lunch in a gastropub called The Eagle. Years and years ago. I didn't know if I was way out of date. Thankfully, and more than a little surprisingly, my memory served me well and lo, there in the distance, like a sparkling green oasis in a desert, the pub rose up: glorious, cozy, and full to brimming with enthusiastic, chatty diners and some extraordinarily tasty-looking/smelling dishes.
2 seconds later and I'd found my new best friend: the barman was from Madrid, and I momentarily forgot my hunger in favour of talking (unsurprisingly my 2nd favourite thing) nattering away in Spanish, glad of the excuse to roll the lingo round my tongue after all my months since Mexico. Hunger (and my friend) soon started tapping me on the shoulder in reminder again, so I tracked down the waiter flitting through the crowd, who I'd usefully been informed by my barman friend also Spanish (as, indeed, they all were), and I wasted no more time in a request for two seats. Perched on a shared table, David and I got on with the serious task of menu-study.
Four scrawled chalkboards jubilantly proclaim the day's dishes - mostly made up of a handful of hearty meat mains which are grilled lustily in front of the kitchen for all to see, a neverending array of tantalising smells shamelessly whetting the eager eater's appetite. Not that mine needed any help. By this stage I was practically chomping at the bit, with the thought of the soup of the day, a 'canjo portuguese' (portuguese stew) made of chicken, rice and broth - very reminiscent of a dish Ma Pea makes for me when I'm under the weather and need nourishing - making me drool. Starvation was momentarily forgotten, however, when in the corner of one of the chalkboards I noticed chalked up a rather beautiful little piece of symmetry to my life of London eating, declaring that The Eagle is (yet another) sister restaurant to two of my previous reviews, The Anchor and Hope, and Great Queen Street. Tic, tac, toe. You gotta love that. And so, I threw caution to the wind and decided to let the dishes do the talking. Finally, we ate.
Canjo Portuguese - now we all know I'm ridiculously fussy about my soups, it's one of my staple, old favourite rants that I've covered it time and time again in previous posts. Something, though, about this place, inspired my soup trust. I went with my gut instinct, and I wasn't disappointed. I was, in fact, completely blown away. This was home away from home. Appearing at the table in a fired chunky red clay bowl, a homage to its Portuguese origins, this was a steaming, luscious and deeply fragrant broth, heavily infused with garlic and comforting thyme, and with generous portions of both the chicken and the rice, it was flawless and just the job to both soak up my pre-dinner drinks and provide the comfort of home away from home.
Grilled Pork Chops with cannellini beans and roasted red onions - poor David, his dish arrived a few minutes after mine and, following a paltry few pieces of sushi at lunch, he'd been ravenous even back at the pub. I'm a nice fellow diner though, and shared my soupy treasure with him until his, frankly, splendid dish graced our table. I am not a natural pork fan, and will almost never choose pork when eating out or when cooking myself - I mostly find it a leathery, tough and tasteless meat. That being said, I will happily tuck into a pair of chops if placed in front of me for tea. Again, like the chicken stew, there's something about the dish that is comforting and very reminiscent of home, family and being served your dins by mum or grandma. I had never tasted pork chops quite like these, however. This was the King of Pork Chops, branded with charred marks straight from the grill, succulent, tender and very, very tasty. Or, in David's words, 'really good' (there's a reason why I'm writing this and not him...no disrespect David). The accompanying beans, gently infused with garlic, warming and almost meaty in their protein punch, were perfect, as were the dark purple, sweetly caramelised onions. Heavenly.
We'd both polished off our dishes, full to brimming with appreciation and enthusiasm, and more than a little reluctance to actually come to the end of such heavenly delights, when, I just happened to notice that the soup of the day option that I'd eaten had been wiped off the chalk board, and a new soup chalked up. It was only blimmin' Caldo Verde (green soup) wasn't it, the (other) national Portuguese soup, that I know almost better than any other soup, having eaten it in Portuguese restaurants across London, Portugal and Brazil. A rapid debate ensued - was it too scandalous to go and order another dish purely out of greed and curiosity? You of course already know the answer.
We shared this hug-in-a-bowl - a thick (and usually a standalone substantial) potato soup, with plenty of vibrant green cabbage, chunks of potatoes and wicked spicy, little pieces of chorizo - the red, smoked sausage often seen livening up spanish and portuguese dishes. I have a minor obsession with chorizo, and when David wasn't looking, was secretly ferreting around with my spoon to find the pieces of red treasure amongst the cabbage and potatoes...
As you can see, with a home away from home right around the corner from the office, and with such foodie finds only a stumble away, I'm going to be a happy little working bunny. With an energetic and sparky atmosphere, a media crowd stumbling across the road from The Guardian offices, and very friendly and efficient waiters, not to mention outstanding food, The Eagle is first on my list for the area. Check. It. Out.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
The hot topics that I'll be posting on in the upcoming months will be:
- Restaurant Crits - (probably with a high concentration on Credit Crunch deals)
- Healthy Eating and Work - how to combine the two (in continuation of the theme of my last post)
- Little treats and finds round the city - including 'Five Minutes Peace' - cafes, nooks and crannies where you can enjoy a cuppa tea/coffee and your favourite book away from the crowds
I hope everyone's remembered Mother's day! Mine's been the lucky recipient of a pretty little homemade card slightly reminicent of six-year old me, though slightly more adept (thankfully) at capturing human body proportions. This time round Mummy Pea doesn't look like a potato. Always a bonus. That, coupled with a handful of silver and gold sugared almonds (her favourite), some beautiful smelling flowers, and afternoon tea later on today, should go a teensy way towards thanking her for being the star Mum that she has been these last 27 years, and particularly this last year.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Now there's a good excuse for not writing up your foodie frolics if ever I heard (/wrote) one.
And the truth of the matter is, well, I've been exploring an entirely different way of eating. The carb fest that was Italy in combination with months of eating and writing about whatever I wanted (with a frugal focus), not to mention the six months' travel eating the wackiest global foods on offer, I decided it was high time my poor bod/tum was given a bit of a holiday and some TLC. So together we set off on a little jolly jaunt into the world of really healthy eating.
And, I know this may be a little controversial, and I never thought I'd hear myself say this but - I'm actually enjoying it. I'm talking a real focus on eating light proteins (mainly fish), maximising my fruit and veg intake and, for the moment, cutting out all milk, wheat, caffeine and sugar. I know, sounds boring doesn't it.
But I'm here today to tell you that it doesn't need to be boring at all! Especially the fish side of things. Previously a bit naive about the potential of sea produce, I'm now starting to veer dangerously towards pescatarian-evangelism. I could rant and rave for hours about the merits of the fishy stuff, or Sea Bass-bash you. But I'll let my recipes speak for themselves as, over the next few weeks, I'm going to be exploring a few of the interesting options I'm starting to come up with, and demonstrate how healthy eating doesn't have to be all bland, boring dishes with no pizzazz. Quite the opposite!
As a result of my two weeks' healthier eating, I can honestly say I'm a changed woman - I've got energy that was seriously lacking before, I'm bouncing out of bed (actually, annoyingly early), enjoying my exercise, and there are the added benefits of skin, hair and nails which are starting to glow like a lavalamp. Though admittedly not quite so fluorescent.
But enough of my waffle, let's cut to my first fish dish.
Look at thaaaat. Shiny, glistening, silky, silvery. Fish that is so fresh it's still gleaming from the sea. Believe it or not, I'm finding that Waitrose, moreso even than some of the fish stalls, sells the most spankingly fresh fish of all varieties. Impressive every time.
Asian Baked Sea Bass with Stir Fried Garlicky greens & rice
First get the rice cooking, as the fish takes barely any time at all.
Once it's bubbling away, lay the prepared fish on a baking tray - stuff it with roughly chopped spring onions, sprinkling half over the top of the fish. Rub a bit of sea salt on the skin of the fish, and then sprinkle/stuff a mixture of chopped/sliced ginger, lemongrass and squeezed lime over the fish. If you'd like a bit more of an asian feel, add a splash of soy sauce (being careful not to oversalt, as you've already salted previously), and some chopped coriander. Pop the fish in the oven for about 15 minutes on high (245C). I'm still using an aga, so my temperatures are shady - keep an eye on whether the fish is cooked through or not.
Meanwhile, stir fry the garlic in some groundnut oil until golden, and add a generous handful of beansprouts, some of the chopped spring onions and some roughly chopped asparagus. This should not take long to wilt, til the asparagus is al dente.
Serve and enjoy, you healthy, healthy so-n-so.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Last weekend, in a romantic move to top all other romantic moves, il huomo whisked me off to a mystery destination. I had had three days’ warning, and only the following clue to go by: ‘you will need your passport’. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know why, but I sure hoped they'd have some decent nosh to keep me going...
What I particularly enjoyed in the brief run-up to said jolly jaunt, was the consistency of reactions by both female and male audiences. The boys: ‘blimey, he’s got style’. The girls: ‘but what on earth are you going to PACK?!’ Quite.
And so it was, that packed with a sufficiently multi-purpose miniature wardrobe, I was duly swept off to the airport, while il huomo deflected a relentless stream of my furious guesswork: could it be Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome? Brighton, Blackpool, Timbuktu? Men, listen well, for here I shall let you in on a secret for free. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you tell a woman she’s being taken somewhere ‘secret’, she will do her darndest to figure out where. Of course, I'd been clever, and before we'd left home, I scribbled a sly note, and slipped it on top of the microwave as future evidence of my budding genius....(but did I get it right?)*.
I was convinced that by the time we had checked on to the plane I would have foiled the whole delicious plot, but there I was quite, quite wrong. Where the heck was Trieste?! Raise your hands if you knew, because I have to confess, I was stumped. No clue. The in-flight magazine soon helped me out, and a few more pointed questions about certain purchases il huomo had made (seriously, what grown man needs a plastic elephant blowing bubbles??) meant that, much to my surprise, by the end of the flight he had caved and told me everything. At least, so I thought.
We were to do a mini-tour of the northeastern-most part of Italy, a melting pot of history and culture, starting in Trieste, and driving north and finally south to end at Venice Carnival (this, should you have been completely flummoxed, was where the bubble-elephant came in). More surprises followed throughout, however.
Of course, the very first thing which flashed into my greedy little brain wasn't culture, or history, or how exciting carnival would be. No no. I'm not ashamed to admit it went along these lines: 'oohhh paaasstaaaa!!' . Now, as you may have read from my previous travel blog, Italy has never disappointed in the food department, and yet on this particular trip I learnt one very important rule. Bend in closely now, and I’ll tell you. Travel round Italy with an Italian....
But enough of the story, I know you’re on the edge of your seats to find out what a blow-by-blow account of the fabulous feasting. Here we go. You may pause for indigestion tablets halfway through reading if necessary:
Post-travel, low blood sugar, an eagerly received Pizza Pugliese – a heavenly topping of olives, capers, anchovies and onions. And real, Italian Pizza. None of that leaden, tastless dough here, this was thin, ever so slightly chewy with a slight crispiness. Molten mozzarella, perfect tomatoe topping. This was Pizza Heaven.
Yet another surprise - first class seats at the opera (an experience which would merit an entire posting in itself, for the people-watching alone!). Three hours later, and at half midnight, we were enjoying a post-opera midnight feast with the leading soprano herself. What an experience. Only in Italy could you imagine breezily entering a restaurant at half midnight and demanding a three course meal with wine. Imagine the same in the UK?! We settled in, and were regaled with stories of heaving bosoms and uncomfortable costumes by the diva herself, as we supped on the most heavenly spaghetti con le alice – pasta perfection, laced with an extraordinary, tastebud-tantalising fresh anchovy sauce. Salty and very, very satisfying.
Linguine con gamberettti e rucola (shrimp and rocket pasta) – a soothing, creamy seafood sauce threaded with the rocket giving it a little peppery kick.
San Daniele prosciutto– Parma, make way. San Daniele is the hidden ham secret of Italy, where velvety folds of the salty-sweet, delicate and tender prosciutto ham are piled high onto plates for your delectation. We each ate an obscenely large plateful of the meat, with the salt quota rendering it almost alarmingly moreish. I fell into bed having eaten my body weight in ham, and dreamt of flying pigs(‘ legs)…
Saccotini con pere e formaggio (little sacks with pears and cheese) – this was a new one on me, an intriguing pasta shaped like little bunched up purses, their little pockets filled with a sweet treasure of pears and cheese, the sweet buttery sauce spooned on top.
Followed by…Stewed venison with grilled polenta – a hearty, filling dish, ideal mountain fare. Juniper berries, thyme, bay leaves and red wine played alongside tender meat, with the polenta calming and subduing what might otherwise have been a bit of a boisterous dish. Thank goodness for espresso!
Squid ink spaghetti – I know I repeat myself here, but goodness me the pasta’s good in this country! I may just have to insert a video at some stage, as often the only way I seem capable of describing these is with facial expressions, hand gestures, and general smacking of lips!
Monkfish steamed in prosecco - this was an enigma, so tasty, and such a meaty fish, but what the heck was ‘coda di rospo’ in English?! Well folks, google has lovingly informed me that it is none other than the infamous monkfish. But of course! Yet another mystery solved.
Pizza with Radicchio – absurdly, this dark red cousin of the chicory cooks down so that it is luscious, and almost meaty, its peppery, slightly bitter flavour making an excellent seasonal pizza topping. Different, and oh so good.
Deep breath, and digest.
But wait, there is more! It may seem hard to believe, but we did in fact manage to cram all of these eats into five days. And I've not yet mentioned the extreme over-indulgence of Venice Carnival, where we seemed to be eating and drinking every 10 minutes – stopping for frittole, delicious tiny balls of chocolate-filled fried dough specific to the Venetian region and carnival, candy floss, sugared nuts, as well as savoury treats, and all of the different particular alcoholic drinks of the region. Obviously, we were just making absolutely 100% sure that we'd make it through the upcoming Lent...
It was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of my tastebuds most relentless holidays. Taking their tips from the operatic diva, they got a little big for their boots - a touch spoilt, and slightly demanding. So in order to break them back gently down to earth, and to end the adventure on an excess high, on our flight back home we stopped over in Rome. Unexpectedly dealt a few extra hours in the city, rather than mope around the airport, we zoomed into the city, and ate an ice cream in front of the Fonte di Treve.
What do we think, does the boy get brownie points??
*I guessed Venice, so...nearly...!
Friday, February 27, 2009
Do not - I repeat, do NOT - venture anywhere further than the confines of Kingsland Road in Shoreditch for bang-on-target authentic Vietnamese food. And that’s an order.
One of the city’s great culinary pleasures, no.72, the Viet Hoa, delivers a non-stop stream of star performers – drool as you lovingly wrap a golden, crispy and oh-so-hot spring roll in its fresh salad jacket, savour the flavour as you dunk it in its piquant fish sauce pool; tip pools of pungent, firey bowls laden with lime, salty fish sauce and chillies onto your plate of bun xa, piles of thin rice vermicelli, fragrant coriander and toasted, garlic-flecked chicken or prawns which, in a flash, morph from dry noodles into a wondrous pool of tasty, nourishing noodles to slurp; delight at the fascinatingly sweet, sharp, sour flavours of steamed tilapia fish with mango, simply teamed with succulent, sticky white rice. There are plenty of dishes which vie for attention, jostling to make it into the final selection. You'll be spoilt for choice - so those are my recommendations to get you started, and get you hooked.
The food is fantastic, the price is right, the staff are a joy and the people-watching riveting.
I ask you, what more could you want from an evening?
Thursday, February 26, 2009
A trip up to The Big Smoke always guarantees several things:
• A severe dent to the wallet
• Slight culture shock
• The recollection of quite how much you always used to hate the tube
• Smile deficit – not enough people looking happy for my liking/requirement
• BUT – on the positive side – you always know you’ll have a packed repertoire of new and interesting eats to get noshing.
Which is good when you write a food blog. These days my restaurant visits are so few and far between that there’s minimal blog material to be getting on with. So as soon as I get the opportunity to flex my jaw muscles and get chewing, I seize it!
At the moment I’m helping with the research and writing for a friend’s next book so, as is our customary way, we ended the day in a nice restaurant. Not a bad end to the working day!
Whilst normally we work our way through the various decent Italian restaurants in London, this time we went ye olde englishe-style, and hit up Great Queen Street, the sister restaurant to gastropub Anchor & Hope I talked about back in November. And it did its little sister proud, with not only scrumptious dishes, but also brilliant service, and an unexpected little dish hiccup, which led to much hilarity between myself and our waiter.
So what did I tuck into, I hear you cry! Well:
Cod’s Roe Salad with carrots, beetroot and watercress – thin slivers of pungent smokey fish roe, bright orange against an attractive array of violet beetroot chunks, sweet and earthy, candy-sweet baby carrots, and piquant watercress, all bound together with a light horseradish sauce. The perfect combination of salt, sea, sweet, earth and nostril-flaring tang of the horseradish tantalizing and teasing your tastebuds. An ‘on-your-toes’ dish if ever there was one. Not least because, and this is probably not such a good thing, but give the ensuing mirth I just had to mention it – there was, shall we say, an extra added ingredient. I couldn’t quite place it, or mark back to the list of ingredients in the menu, so I called over our (very brash, cheeky Australian) waiter, who was my new gay best friend, and asked him. There’s a first time for everything – I’d never fed a waiter off my dish, he ate the mystery object, couldn’t place it either, muttered ‘do you mind?’ and WHIPPED it off my plate, for a scientific dissection session back in the kitchen. Turned out a rogue mushroom had found its way onto my plate. Not to worry – free entertainment!
Arboath Smoked Haddock with mashed swede and buttered cabbage – an understated diva, this Haddock rather stole the show. Buttery and smokey, and scattered lightly with chives, it sang alongside the support acts - a mellow mashed swede and a heaped spoonful of buttered cabbage. Anyone traumatized by school memories of the veg would soon be guaranteed converts.
So, all in all, a splendiferous show, and worth a return visit.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Of course, I say I can't put my finger on it, but that's not going to stop me from trying my very best to theorise. (Professor NibbleScribbler dons her scientific hat) I believe (and of course, I've got no cold, hard proof), that it has something to do with the fatty texture of lamb, the somehow simultaneously mellow yet robust flavour of the meat. I'm interested to know if anyone else feels the same way as I do here. But then, I'm probably just rabbitting on with noone listening as usual. Still, the birds in the garden like it, heck, I think they even understand me!
So this morning, off I waltzed down to the well-overpriced butcher's down the bottom of the lane, to request two nice generous strips of his best lamb's neck. Coming in at a whopping £9.50, I wouldn't exactly classify this under my previous frugal entries , however, it was a splendiferous-if-not-quite-economic soup which resulted, and you can rest assured that the amount would feed a hungry rugby team. Course, I'm reckoning that if you get yourself on to a cheaper butcher's and you could halve the price.
Anyway, where was I, oh yes, so: Lamb. Today's tummy-warmer was a beaut - 'Lamb and Pearl Barley Soup'. Rock 'n' roll.
1.5 lbs Lamb's neck
1 garlic clove, chopped, glug olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
(optional: 1-2 parsnips, diced)
1/2 tin chopped tomatoes
1 lamb stock cube + 1 litre water
handful chopped parsley, 1 bay leaf
1/4 tspn: dried coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric
splash soy sauce and worcester sauce
couple handfuls pearl barley
1. In a large casserole dish, brown the meat with the garlic in the olive oil on a medium heat. Remove into bowl, and, again in the casserole, cook the onion and celery until golden, then add the carrots and parsnips. Stir, then return the lamb to the pan.
2. Add the tomatoes, a dash each of worcester/soy sauce, then the lamb stock and liquid. Allow to simmer slowly, then add in the spices, parsley, bay leaf and pearl barley.
3. Put in a medium heat oven (sorry, can't be more specific as using an Aga at the moment) to slow cook for 2-3 hours, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally.
Easy as that really. Magic.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
It's going to be a bit of a 'cobbled together' recipe, as is my way - as it was all a bit handful of this, dash of that, etc etc. But 'twas too scrumptious not to share.
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small onion, diced
1-2 small sticks celery, finely diced
2 cupfuls long-grain rice
1 lamb stock cube
spices: cinnamon, 2-3 cloves
handful each of almonds or cashew nuts, sultanas/raisins, chopped apricots
1/2 small onion, sliced thinly
2-3 handfuls of roughly chopped leftover lamb (from a Sunday lunch)
1. Sweat garlic, onions and celery in a pan with some butter and olive oil, when golden add the rice and stir, covering the rice grains.
2. Crumble in the lamb stock, and add enough water to just cover the rice grains. Stir, and continue to stir until most liquid is absorbed. The rice should be a dark yellow colour (as a result of the lamb stock).
3. Add in the spices, dried fruit and nuts and chopped cooked lamb, stirring in, and allowing most of the remaining liquid to cook off.
4. Serve with chopped parsley scattered.
Really good warming lunch, mmm, making my tum rumble as I write in fact.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Of course, don't get me wrong - that does NOT by ANY means translate as the young nibblescribbler wasting away, not putting a morsel past her lips. Ha! With all this snow around??! You must be kidding! A girl needs comfort food in times like these!
So let me break down my various noteworthy foodventures over the last month or so. This is blatant cheating, but at the moment I steadfastly refuse to post an individual account of each, you'll have to make do with these scraplets. I figure I can make my own rules here. You can't get to me to tell me off, I'm safe the other side of the screen!
- Benares - posh indian restaurant to be found on glitzy Berkeley Square near Nobu, yet another poncy restaurant I've an eye to try (only if treated by a bigger wallet than I). The 2nd time I've been to Benares, and it didn't disappoint, as chef Atul Kochhar pleased the eye and the palate (and, unusually, the wallet, with a special credit crunch meal deal) with beautifully presented dishes packed full of indian flavour. I cracked into Tandoor cooked Salmon fillets with spiced Gazpacho salsa, a delightful dry roasted chunk of salmon, lent juiciness by its accompanying sauce, followed by Pan Fried King Fish steaks with Chilli-Garlic Mash and Nilgiri Sauce. I found this slightly unremarkable, exactly as you'd have expected it, with the mash and sauce combining to rather cloying effect. Still, I forgave the meal this when what, frankly, to me was the piece de resistance. Our, by now, bosom buddy waiter (I make a habit of befriending the waiters because a) from past waitressing experience I know how snooty customers can be and b) it makes them much better disposed to treating you nice), appeared in a flash, and carefully placed a tiny flat black glass dish in front of each of the three of us. Into the shallow indentation of each dish, he poured a few drops of water from a jug. Also on his tray I noticed three small, flat round white pellets, which I presumed were the sort of crazy amuse-bouche you tend to get in this type of restaurant. But. EVEN BETTER!! He dropped each into the water and POFF!, as if by magic they were suddenly ten times their height: a little warm hand towel ready for use. Honestly, the guy couldn't have had a better audience than me for this little trick. My eyes were like saucers, my little hands were clapping and I was giggling with glee. I would honestly have paid the entire price of the meal JUST to see this little trick!
- Hm, well, then I've already told you about Tayyabs, my favourite Indian restaurant tucked away in East London ...
- Charitable soul that I am, that same London-bound week I decided to give Cha Cha Moon, subject of damning scorn from a previous post, another try (mainly through the oft-encountered London dilemma of 'not being able to get home to eat' and 'required dirt cheap prices due to impending poverty') and found it to be in better sorts once again, fully-trained staff in place. Sadly, though, prices look like they'll never again be back to their previously outrageous, and note-worthy economy status.
- I was then treated to a handful of home-cooked Sicilian meal (I will elaborate on this in due course, I promise) - examples such as Squid Ink Pasta with Botarga, Steamed Lemon Sole accompanied by spinach and sultanas, and Ricotta Ravioli with Pistachio Sauce.
- Reciprocally and nationally obliged to demonstrate that, whilst not quite on a par with Italian cooking, English food can sometimes be pretty darn great I cheated, and brought Il huomo home to be cooked for by...my mum. Well, without a kitchen, I'm restricted and, I know I'm slightly biased, but she does cook the best meals in the land. No pressure then mum, but English National Food Heritage (and Pride) lies squarely on your shoulders. She rose admirably to the occasion, producing a (not-so-English, admittedly, yet completely delicious) chickpea soup, followed by a stellar rendition of Roast Chicken, accompanied by crisped, golden roast potatoes and parsnips cooked in goose fat (divine), steamed cabbage that hovered perfectly between al dente and feather-soft, carrots and a steaming, tasty golden gravy. Nowt more English than that! This was followed by diva-esque puffs of beautiful baked apples oozing with a caramelly butter sauce and sultanas/raisins, poured over with cream. All guests left the table replete to play a fierce game of Cluedo, the resultant competitiveness no doubt fruitsugar-fuelled. No sooner had the main meal commenced digestion, than a round of English tea was brought out; crumpets dripped with butter and lemon curd, and home-made scones groaned with their generous load of raspberry jam and clotted cream. Cholesterol? What's that?!
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
So England is snowed in. Which seems the perfect excuse to catch up on weeks and weeks of food-related stories in one higgldypiggldy, disorganised heap. I'm cosied up on the sofa next to the fire, a cashmere throw over my woolly-tighted pins, tapping away whilst sipping the perfect mug of tea and occasionally dunking in a biccie. Could life be any sweeter? There's a definite sense of collective glee in the snowy British air, as everyone bunks off work, revelling in the bona fide excuse that it's impossible (and borderline dangerous) to get into work what with the piles of snow heaped everywhere.
Me, well, following a very brief snow angel session (almost just to make a point), and a brisk welly-clad walk in the white stuff, which left me with rosy cheeks and a healthy appetite, I've mostly stayed indoors nursing the beginnings of a wee sore throat (any excuse to curl up next to the fire really...).
See? Proof I'm not just making it up. We are SNOWED UNDER. You can even compare this exact back garden view with the same frosty version of a few posts back. The world is cloaked with delicious icing....!
Which reminds me about that appetite I worked up...
Monday, January 26, 2009
Now wait, let me backtrack. Charlie is, to put it simply, a culinary genius (I know, I cultivate my friends well). The boy is wasted in a Managmenet Consultancy firm, where he does all sorts of clever, whizkid stuff wtih spreadsheets and sorting out ailing firms. Thankfully for his friends, though, he unleashes his real talent and passion in the kitchen at the weekends where, with an apron wound round his gentle giant frame (he is a 6'3" giant who dwarves us all), he regularly works his magic on a series of Sunday lunches. Poor lad, not sure if his motley crew of no good amigos aren't rather a wasted audience for his talents. I, however, am fully appreciative.
The Sunday in question is now a couple of weeks back, and I write having had the chance to digest my extremely generous and quite truly delicious portion of...oh, no, one sec, don't let me spoil the suspense, I'll get to the food later.
So, there I was, on one of my many Sunday mornings up in the big smoke, recovering from a monumental night out, during which I had somehow managed to lose my mobile phone in the bowels of my friend Looble's teeny tiny car (a whole nother story, but suffice to say her car has now been dubbed the Bermuda triangle of phones). This rather clever move was somewhat hampering my usually buzzing social life, and I was slightly perplexed as to how on earth I was going to dredge up memories of where exactly in Clapham Charlie's flat was hidden. I was a little panic-stricken at the thought of missing lunch, if I'm entirely honest with you. One of my trusty friends came to the rescue with his fancy iphone, and on ringing Charlie I learned that I needn't have worried, the original (already alarmingly late to my clockwork tum) lunchtime of 3pm had now been pushed back a little. Apparently I wasn't the only one suffering from post-Saturday night pains...
...so it meant I could rock up at a more leisurely pace. I rang on the bell at 3.30pm, and was greeted by the warm, comforting waft of cheesy pastry, some little home-made rolls that the Chef had whipped up out of some pastry leftovers ('posh cheese on toast').
Appetite well and truly whetted, I settled in to catch up with a university friend, delighting in the pleasure of mouthwatering anticipation. Thankfully the real event was every bit as good as the (lengthy) anticipation (Charlie really knows how to drum up a feeding frenzy amongst even the most food ambivalent of guests - a category in which, you'll no doubt not need informing, I am not found), when at 4.30pm our tummies rumbled, the table was laid and the metaphorical drum rolled. Delicately, and with loving care, our Chef served:
- Cassoulet - look, I know I may have slightly lost credibility, what with my neverending and continuous tendency to wax lyrical about the different food I'm lucky enough to sink my gnashers into (the nasty critic in me does sometimes make an appearance), but let me tell you, I'm not exaggerating when I say - I have never tasetd such a succulent medley of different meats. I carefully picked out, identified and verified with our maestro chef a full array of meats, including tiny, juicy sausages, rich, dark confit duck leg, nuggets of lambshoulder, pork rind and chunks of pork belly. Each medley was doused in a savoury meat sauce, with a couple of spoonfuls from the layer of juice-soaked breadcrumbs topping the whopping great Le Creuset casserole dish. The punch of the meat was tempered and mellowed slightly by the melting creaminess of small, white, haricot beans. Simply outstanding, especially when served with...
- ...a young, spicy Watercress Salad dressed with a sharp, mustardy french dressing - the perfect punchy, simple sidekick to the rich cassoulet.
- Treacley and golden, a darkly rich genuine Tarte Tatin, with large chunks of moist upturned apple over flakey, sticky pastry, soaked iwth its fingerlicking sticky juice. Brings a whole different meaning to this particular apple pastry, which can often be muscled in on by an awful imposter (think thin, insipid, crunchy 'apple' slices, and dry crusty pastry). Not so with this rendition, which did its name proud, perfectly served alongside a dollop of decadent clotted cream.
One lesson learned by our talented host, will no doubt have been 'never text one's guests with requests to bring 'interesting cheeses' when one's guests consist of a handful of cheeky comedians and acerbic actors'. Our 'Interesting Cheese' selection consisted of one mesh bag of mini wax-clad BabyBels...which was, obviously, the perfect end to the perfect meal.
Thanks Charlieboy. xx
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
As promised, I did take some pics. Was rather amazed at how similar the frost last Saturday was to my beloved Christmas cake. It was that heavy! Sadly my photos never do the reality justice but hey ho, I strive to do my best nevertheless.
That's all folks!
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Now safely installed (for a day) back in a crisply cold Surrey, looking out onto acres and acres of garden and fields coated in thick white frost (I’ll try and get a photo and upload this, it’s too beautiful for words), my internet works, and I’m cozying up indoors for a bit whilst I figure out what clothes will protect me from the bitter cold outside.
The ideal excuse to update on my second trip out to eat. One of Alan Yau’s many creations, Cha Cha Moon is on Ganton street, just off Carnaby Street.
I’ve been to this restaurant at least half a dozen times since its opening in May last year, and mostly regaled others with stories of wild enthusiasm. Sadly it looks like I never got round to reviewing it before though, as now it’s a completely different story. Nothing seemed to go right for them on this particular visit, and I’m left with a feeling of crashing disappointment and no desire ever to go back.
The first shock came whilst waiting in the (generally promising) ever-present queue to eat. When handed our menus I saw that the original ‘every dish at £3.50’ gimmick had obviously reached the end of its time, and all items had been adjusted accordingly. The original aim of this ploy had been to draw in the punters, a fantastic piece of promotional marketing, but one which, when kept up too long, makes regular goers complacent, trained, pavlov dog style, to expect super-affordable prices. This makes the eventual price adjustment a horrible shock to the system. Cha Cha Moon can no longer be nipped to for a 'ridiculously cheap, great meal’. Now dishes are up with the rest of the noodle places, not only is it no longer cheap, but it's also, as we were soon to find out, no longer great either. Things boded badly.
We were seated rapidly, there’s never a complaint of too long a wait here. However, my eating companion (Bro P) and I then sat for getting on for ten minutes before anyone so much as ventured near us (10 minutes being an exceptionally long time in noodle-land when dishes can often take less than 30 seconds to prepare). During this time I started to witness evidence of the decline of a previously slick and efficient restaurant: dishes headed to the wrong table; waiters checked and rechecked orders with each other; bumped into each other; and let plates waltz gaily round without an owner. After several requests, we finally secured a waiter’s attention to place our order, before my observations became too depressing. He took our order, only for another waiter to appear 2 minutes later (clearly the one we were supposed to have in the first place). Not to worry, by this stage I was practically gnashing at the bit to be served some form of noodly nourishment – my lunchtime meal had been piddly and I was starving.
And we waited.
Still I watched more confusion amongst the waiting staff. Finally a dish came out, and we watched it being offered to first one, then another diner, until he finally put the dish in front of me. And then - oh boy, this makes my digestive process halt dramatically in its tracks – he PICKED IT UP AGAIN, and said ‘oh, no, I’d better check, I don’t think it’s for you'. Whisking it out from underneath my poised chopsticks and dripping jaws, he took it away. No apology or explanation, nothing! Anyone who knows me well enough will know that this is probably up there with slamming a door in my face or throwing a beer down my back with offensive gestures. This meant WAR.
Two minutes later the same dish was dumped in front of me with barely an explanation. By this time it wasn’t steaming hot, but I was ravenous, and so tucked in. Not only was it not steaming hot, but there were actually sections which were cold, it had been that long out of the kitchen embrace. Of course, I should have complained, but I was so terrified they'd whisk it away again that I crouched low over it, protecting it like a mother bear protects her cubs. It’s hardly relevant what it was or how it tasted – Singapore Char Kway Teow, thick noodles in quite a tasty mixed meat sauce if you're interested. But, with all the emotional upheaval involved in getting my hands on this thing, I wouldn't advise anyone to go through the same trauma.
Bro P unsnapped his chopsticks and tucked into my plate, as there was no sign of his meal, nor would there be for some time to come. In fact, when we were on the verge of polishing the dish off, there was still no sign, so we asked a waiter, and his Singapore Fried Noodle finally arrived, just as I was picking up the last few strands of noodles. His dish tasted fusty and of hot dogs, and not even close to the standard of my previous visits. Meanwhile two or three wrong dishes were shown past our table.
We paid (no tip), and left. Never to return again.
No service, late meals, constant waiter confusion, a false serving, a practically cold dish. And all without the super-cheap price tag we’ve now been trained to expect.
Serious thumbs down.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
So, in an unusual ‘throwing thrift to the wind’ gesture, when I arrived in London last Sunday night, I decided it was about time I ate out. And so I did. Two days in a row no less.
Numero Uno: 5* - HIGH recommendation
Now, before I get more entangled in my little tale, let me set the background on my relationship with Indian meals.
I am not a natural curry fan.
It’s the result of too many years of disgusting, cheap and terrible Indian meals whilst at uni, meals which tended to consist of £10 deals (1 curry, 1 beer, 1 case of chronic indigestion and a serious dose of self-loathing), during which us uni students tended to behave atrociously (naturally), get drunk, disorderly and ending the evening with the odd food fight.
Now, before I hear your sharp intake of breath that I could be so uncouth, let me make it clear right away, I wasn’t one of the ones throwing food – clearly to me that is the ultimate sin. But seeing curry splattered against the walls wasn’t terribly conducive to giving me a raging appetite for the spicy stuff.
This, coupled with making the mistake once of watching a TV programme entitled ‘The Top 10 Worst Restaurants in Britain’ (I know, don’t ask what possessed me), and witnessing what sort of tricks the Indian restaurant topping the list pulled on its unsuspecting punters (great big vats of ‘different’ curry sauces, into which washed off uneaten meat from previous customers’ dishes were unceremoniously dunked). It was toecurling, stomach-wrenching stuff. And as a direct result about three years ago I was pretty much refusing to touch curry.
Cue my job out in Dubai, which couldn't have come at a more perfect time, to reinstate me with an appreciation for good indian food. No comparison. There you'll eat mostly southern indian food, a heavy slant towards the vegetarian. Clouds of delicately spiced potato mixture in potato dosa, mental lentils. Curry and I slowly rekindled a tentative love affair.
So you see, I’m possibly one of the most discerning British curry critics there is available to write. I am extraordinarily difficult to please. You might have noticed that this goes against my usual bounce-off-the-walls excitement and enthusiasm at eating out/being taken out, but there it is – I am curry critical.
So, it is with great pleasure, that I announce…. ..drummmm rooooollll….. THE BEST curryhouse in London, bar none. Tayyabs, in London's East End, or Shoreditch, to be more precise. Widely tipped as exceptional, I’d first been invited by one of my bestest buds (Sam the Tea man, should you be interested) for his bday bash back in November. I couldn’t make it. At the time, apart from the fact I was missing the festivities and the chance to smother a best bud with birthday smooches, I wasn’t too too bothered about missing out on ‘yet another curry’.
Until, that is, all sorts of raving rants written about the merits of this mysterious Tayyabs starting creeping into my line of awareness, and I started to rather kick myself for the missed opportunity. London-town bound, therefore, I got StTM in on my plan for a Sunday curry sesh. By gum was I excited.
The very first thing you notice as you walk alongside the restaurant, tucked deep in the bowels of Shoreditch, is that it is veritably heaving with people. In spite of it being a Sunday evening, the tables were overflowing with happy customers, all noshing away. The door opens and the second thing you’ll notice is a delicious medley of scents of cumin, curry, tamarind and other spices I couldn't quite put my olfactory finger on. The queue to eat was snaking right round the restaurant. Hm. This boded mouthwateringly well. We entertained ourselves admirably until, not long after – oh joy! – we were allocated our table. By this stage I was in such a paroxysm of hunger and excitement that I clean forgot how one is supposed to behave in a restaurant. Our poor, patient waiter had to deal with an overexcited, gibbering fool making orders (me, should that not be clear). As it turns out though, my choices were outstanding:
- Spicy grilled lamb chops – miniature mouthfuls of succulent, juicy meat, dripping with a biting, spicy sauce. An excellent appetite whetter. Although, frankly speaking, it would be a restrained restaurant-goer whose appetite wasn’t already whetted by the sights and smells of dishes gliding past.
- Lamb & Lentil curry – what was so brilliant about this, in comparison to most curries I’ve eaten before, is that the lamb was in modest, bite-sized pieces, rather than great big walloping hunks (most offputting). Tender meat surrounded by more-ish, comforting daal (lentils), with a gentle kick to it which nudges you out of getting dangerously comfortable. A real spirit-lifter of a dish.
- Aubergine & Lentil – you’d expect this just to be a variation on the above, substituting the lamb out for the aubergine, but let me assure you that this wasn’t at all the case. Still with the same ‘gwon-gizza-hug’ element of lentils, threaded through with melting strips of garlicky aubergine. Aubergine, when slowly cooked, has a remarkable ability to absorb smoky flavours which surround it. This dish packed a serious garlic punch, yet another mechanism which made each diner reach back again and again for ‘just another spoonful’ (I was mortified when, at the end of the meal, I realized that for quite some minutes our waiter had been patiently waiting to remove our dishes, only waiting the vulture to finish her scavaging. Ahem.)
- Saag Aloo – soft, delicate green spinach, tender, garlic infused potatoes. Together. Seriously, what more could you want from a dish? This particular dish has the potential to become heavy and leaden. Tayyabs’ rendition was light as a feather, and not too filling.
Go. Go, go, go! You won't regret it.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Two weeks I've been down with the lurgy, that's two whole weeks of my life wasted in bed-ridden hours, days and days of no real senses (taste or smell, sob!), temperatures, fevers, blocked sinuses, exploding heads. It was HIDEOUS!
But yesterday, two days into this brand spanking new year, I woke to my first day of a clear head - I could breathe. And oh boy was it good. So I spent most of the morning revelling in this fact, skipping and dancing round my room to a song which undoubtedly would severely lower my kudos amongst my friends, but which nevertheless makes me feel unbelievably positive. Oh dear, it's playing again...
Then I spent the rest of the day chopping veg, assembling hams, salamis, chicken legs, and Christmas leftovers as a whole host of friends descended from London to help us with our remaining food. Bowl after bowl of steaming and redemptive chicken and vegetable broth (Ma Pea being, as I may have mentioned before, the Queen of soups), spiced homemade date chutney with baked ham, crunchy, cleansing celery and carrot, and the richer creamier Italian cheeses left over from our time in Italy. All in all a thoroughly good day.
I wonder if I'm the only one to have slightly embarrassing songs which I jig away to in the kitchen when compiling whatever the dish of the day is, I'm sure I'm not. Somehow I think when a dish is made with love and happiness, corny as it sounds, it can be tasted!
What song and dish would be your favourite way to get your year off to a riproaring start?
Friday, January 2, 2009
There’s a hurried and slightly frantic rush to enter the restaurant before the usual 2pm lunch cutoff. The door slams behind our family of four, scooting us indoors. We hold our collective breath, hoping there would be room at the inn. We needn’t have worried – a far cry from the dour-faced welcome of an English eatery, here a space is quickly made, a table obligingly cleared and with several cheerful shouts of ‘Buon giorno’ we are welcomed with open-armed generosity as only Italians know how.
We are ushered through a dark hobbit tunnel, to the left side of which the rowdy clatter and bang of a steamy kitchen can be heard. Immediately after the kitchen, the tunnel opens out into the bright lights of the second dining room, revealing an Italian crowd gathered round eight or so tables of anything between two to eight occupants: a jolly soap opera scene. Tables of families are immersed in conversation, tucking into hearty meals, sharing deep red wines, or listening intently as waiters enthusiastically describe each separate gem on the menu with dramatic gesticulations and opulent rolling of musical vowels.
Settling into our table and gaining a sense of our surroundings I look around, noting deeply etched faces on all sides, expressions ready carved for an emotional prompt. There is the lively hum of voices without pause, bubbling like a cheerful brook. The occasional melodramatic outburst of an excited voice rises staccato above the rest, accompanied by much waving of hands. Faces are kind, smiling, laughter lines framing chestnut brown eyes and dark curls atop heads. Clothes are the autumnal palette of the Tuscan painter, rich, comforting and cozy.
An endless succession of inspiring plates of food are borne aloft as the waiters waltz past, each trailing tantalizing scents of garlic, herbs, roast meat. English mouths water shamelessly in anticipation of the first Italian meal in months, and eyes widen in glee as we turn our full attention to the important and not unenjoyable task of menu perusal. With all five senses pulled in opposing directions, it’s difficult to keep concentration for long, but I eventually choose the gnocchi con cavalo nero. We decide to share a couple of roast dishes between four – in Italy it is perilously easy to overdo it. The order is taken with many cries of appreciation and recommendation, ‘Gnocchi? Fantastico! Excelente! Buenisimo!’
My attention is caught by free entertainment provided by one family’s little toddler repeatedly tottering off on expedition back through the connecting tunnel, an intrepid and determined explorer. The entire troupe of waiters are at his beck and call: playing games, making faces, and pandering to the little tyke’s every command.
Steaming platefuls of savoury delights soon arrive, mouthfuls of featherlight gnocchi topped in a delicately flavoured, fine sliced cavalo nero sauce. Roast rabbit leg follows – rosemary, salt and garlic juice is licked off fingers just as pork ribs arrive, charred but succulent, mopping up garlicky swiss chard side. Platefuls of delightful treasure troves.